The nihilism and rage sweeping across the globe are not generated by warped ideologies or medieval religious beliefs. These destructive forces have their roots in the obliterating of social, cultural and religious traditions by modernization and the consumer society, the disastrous attempts by the United States to carry out regime change, often through coups and wars, and the utopian neoliberal ideology that has concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny cabal of corrupt global oligarchs.
This vast, global project of social engineering during the last century persuaded hundreds of millions of people, as Pankaj Mishra writes in The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, "to renounce -- and often scorn -- a world of the past that had endured for thousands of years, and to undertake a gamble of creating modern citizens who would be secular, enlightened, cultured and heroic." The project has been a spectacular failure.
"To destroy a people," Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted acidly, "you must sever their roots." The wretched of the earth, as Frantz Fanon called them, have been shorn of any ideological or cultural cohesion. They are cut off from their past. They live in crushing poverty, numbing alienation, hopelessness and often terror. Mass culture feeds them the tawdry, the violent, the salacious and the ridiculous. They are rising up against these forces of modernization, driven by an atavistic fury to destroy the technocratic world that condemns them. This rage is expressed in many forms -- Hindu nationalism, protofascism, jihadism, the Christian right or anarchic violence. But the various forms of ressentiment spring from the same deep wells of global despair. This ressentiment "poisons civil society and undermines political liberty," Mishra writes, and it is fueling "a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism."
Western elites, rather than accept their responsibility for the global anarchy, self-servingly define the clash as one between the values of the enlightened West and medieval barbarians. They see in the extreme nationalists, religious fundamentalists and jihadists an inchoate and inexplicable irrationality that can be quelled only with force. They have yet to grasp that the disenfranchised do not hate us for our values; they hate us because of our duplicity, use of indiscriminate industrial violence on their nations and communities and our hypocrisy. The dispossessed grasp the true message of the West to the rest of the planet: We have everything and if you try to take it away from us we will kill you.
The more that Western elites are attacked, the more they too retreat into a mythological past, self-glorification and willful ignorance. Mishra writes:
"Thus, in the very places [in the West] where secular modernity arose, with ideas that were then universally established -- individualism (against the significance of social relations), the cult of efficiency and utility (against the ethic of honour), and the normalization of self-interest -- the mythic Volk has reappeared as a spur to solidarity and action against real and imagined enemies.
"But nationalism is, more than ever before, a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud with its promise of making a country 'great again' and its demonization of the 'other'; it conceals the real conditions of existence, and the true origins of suffering, even as it seeks to replicate the comforting balm of transcendental ideals within a bleak earthly horizon. Its political resurgence shows that ressentiment -- in this case, of people who feel left behind by the globalized economy or contemptuously ignored by its slick overlords and cheerleaders in politics, business and the media -- remains the default metaphysics of the modern world since [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau first defined it. And its most menacing expression in the age of individualism may well be the violent anarchism of the disinherited and the superfluous."
The proponents of globalization promised to lift workers across the planet into the middle class and instill democratic values and scientific rationalism. Religious and ethnic tensions would be alleviated or eradicated. This global marketplace would create a peaceful, prosperous community of nations. All we had to do was get government out of the way and kneel before market demands, held up as the ultimate form of progress and rationality.
Neoliberalism, in the name of this absurd utopia, stripped away government regulations and laws that once protected the citizen from the worst excesses of predatory capitalism. It created free trade agreements that allowed trillions of corporate dollars to be transferred to offshore accounts to avoid taxation and jobs to flee to sweatshops in China and the global south where workers live in conditions that replicate slavery. Social service programs and public services were slashed or privatized. Mass culture, including schools and the press, indoctrinated an increasingly desperate population to take part in the vast global reality show of capitalism, a "war of all against all."
What we were never told was that the game was fixed. We were always condemned to lose. Our cities were deindustrialized and fell into decay. Wages declined. Our working class became impoverished. Endless war became, cynically, a lucrative business. And the world's wealth was seized by a tiny group of global oligarchs. Kleptocracies, such as the one now installed in Washington, brazenly stole from the people. Democratic idealism became a joke. We are now knit together, as Mishra writes, only "by commerce and technology," forces that Hannah Arendt called "negative solidarity."
The backlash, Mishra writes, resembles the anarchist, fascist and communist violence and terrorism that took place at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. In one of the most important parts of his brilliant and multi-layered analysis of the world around us, Mishra explains how Western ideas were adopted and mutated by ideologues in the global south, ideas that would become as destructive as the imposition of free market capitalism itself.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution in Iran, for example, borrowed liberally from Western ideas, including representation through elections, egalitarianism and Vladimir Lenin's revolutionary vanguard, which was adapted for a Muslim world. Nishida Kitaro and Watsuji Tetsuro of Japan's Kyoto School, steeped in the romantic nationalism of German philosophers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte, transformed the glorification of the German nation into a glorification of imperial Japan. They "provided the intellectual justification for Japan's brutal assault on China in the 1930s, and then the sudden attack on its biggest trading partner in December 1941 -- at Pearl Harbor." South Asia's most important writer and scholar, Muhammad Iqbal, provided a "Nietzschean vision of Islam revivified by strong self-creating Muslims." And the Chinese scholar Lu Xun called for Chinese to exhibit the "indomitable will exemplified by Zarathustra." These bastard ideologies cloaked themselves in the veneer of indigenous religious traditions and beliefs. But they were new creations, born out of the schöpferische Zerstörung, or "gale of creative destruction," of global capitalism.
Nowhere is this more true than with the modern calls for jihad by self-styled Islamic radicals, most of whom have no religious training and who often come out of the secularized criminal underworld. The jihadist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, nicknamed "the sheikh of slaughterers" in Iraq, had, as Mishra writes, "a long past of pimping, drug-dealing and heavy drinking." The Afghan-American Omar Mateen reportedly was a frequenter of the nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where he massacred 49 people and had been seen there drunk. Anwar al-Awlaki, who preached jihad and was eventually assassinated by the United States, had a penchant for prostitutes. Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a senior leader of Islamic State before he was killed, called on Muslims in the West to kill any non-Muslims they encountered. "Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison," al-Adnani told followers.
The idea of Mikhail Bakunin's "propaganda by deed" is, Mishra writes, "now manifest universally in video-taped, live-streamed and Facebooked massacres." It grew, he writes, "naturally from the suspicion that only acts of extreme violence could reveal to the world a desperate social situation and the moral integrity of those determined to challenge it." These imported ideas filled the void left by the destruction of indigenous beliefs, traditions and rituals. As Mishra says, these jihadists "represent the death of traditional Islam rather than its resurrection."